Engaging Employees through High-Involvement Work Practices

High-involvement work practices can develop the positive beliefs and attitudes associated with high employee engagement, and discretionary behaviors that lead to enhanced individual and business performance.


Employee engagement is critically important to competitiveness in the contemporary business environment. The Gallop Organization, which studied employee engagement, found that employee engagement was positively associated with performance in a variety of areas:

  • increased customer satisfaction
  • increased profitability
  • increased productivity
  • reduced employee turnover

For all this talk about employee engagement, what exactly is it? Think of employee engagement as having three related aspects:

  1. cognitive
  2. emotional
  3. behavioral

The cognitive aspect is about employees’ beliefs about the organization, its leaders, and working conditions.

The emotional aspect is about how employees positively or negatively feel about each of those three factors.

The behavioral aspect consists of the effort employees bring to their work in the form of brainpower, energy, and time devoted to doing tasks to the best of their ability to help the organization succeed.

High-involvement work practices can develop the positive beliefs and attitudes associated with employee engagement, and these practices can generate the discretionary behaviors that lead to enhanced individual and business performance.


There is a long list of management practices for generating high involvement and high performance among employees. Some examples are:

  • selecting the right people who are the best fit for the organization
  • committing to training and skill development
  • being a team-based work organization
  • offering incentive-based pay

For example, training programs can be developed for current and future skills, technical and interpersonal skills, new hires, and experienced employees. Incentive-based pay can take the form of overall organizational performance-contingent pay to individuals, to team-based pay, to employee ownership.

Organizational effectiveness scholar, Edward Lawler, and his colleagues, identified four principles for building a high-involvement work system that contributes to a positive impact on employee engagement. These principles can be summed up as providing employees with:

  1. power
  2. information
  3. knowledge
  4. rewards

Power means employees have the power to make decisions that are important to their performance and to the quality of their working lives. Engagement is maximized when the highest possible level of power is pushed down to the employees that must carry out decisions made.

Information means data about the organization’s:

  • revenues
  • output
  • costs
  • profitability
  • customer feedback

A major challenge is to create a system that provides employees with information that is timely and relevant to their work process, that they can influence personally by effort, and that they can understand.

The more transparent managers can make the organization’s operations, the more effectively employees can contribute to the firm’s success. Short, frank, frequent reports on how the company is doing is vital to information-sharing.

Transparency helps employees see the link between their actions and the performance of the organization. Transparency can be achieved through open-book management of selected data ... but only if employees understand what the data means. This obstacle can be overcome through delivery of financial literacy training.

Knowledge means having a commitment to training and development. The training investments are essential in a high- involvement organization because when employees are making important workplace decisions, it is important that they have the skills and abilities to make the right decisions.

The rewards component of the high-involvement equation means rewarding employees for expending discretionary brainpower, energy and time effort to enhance organizational performance.

Where to Begin

To implement high involvement management, virtually every major feature of the organization needs to be designed differently. This is not an easy task. But to begin it starts with vision.

Develop a vision of the “new” organization in broad terms. Leave specifics of what needs to change in the different areas of the organization to the employees.

Then, move into getting employees involved in self-designing and making changes to work processes. "Self-design” is effective because by participating in the process of investigation and development of system changes, employees and managers gain the opportunity to absorb the information needed to make the change, and develop the knowledge and skills needed to change successfully.

To begin, consider taking on a small pilot project that can begin almost anywhere in the organization.

Or perhaps start with a highly visible activity, perhaps one previously done only by managers. Delegate this responsibility to production employees, who are the ones responsible for detecting and fixing problems and making improvements.

Participation also generates more positive attitudes toward the change. When people participate in the design of the new system, they become personally invested in making the system succeed.

Employees have more positive attitudes toward the new work system if they perceived that management listened to their input, and that their suggestions for improving the work process were used.

Finally, by participating in the design process, employees begin to act in ways that go beyond their job descriptions to contribute to organizational improvements; they begin to apply a wider range of ability, knowledge and expertise to solve organizational problems.

Over time, the self-design process normalizes these desirable behaviors, and generates a climate of high employee engagement.

High-involvement work practices that ...

  • provide employees with the power to make workplace decisions
  • deliver training to build their knowledge and skills to make and implement decisions effectively
  • provide information about how their actions affect business unit performance
  • give rewards for their efforts to improve performance

... can result in a win-win situation for employees and managers.

Transforming to a high-involvement work system requires that managers and employees work together to remake virtually the entire organization through the process of self-design. 

High involvement is a rigorous, long-term process. But the result is a uniquely structured organization with highly engaged employees, and a strategic advantage over competitors.